A group of University of St. Thomas students recently met at a workshop to consider the role of race, gender and bias in their campus life.

A female engineering student talked about how male peers sometimes prematurely doubted her. Another engineering major noted that he was one of the few black students working at a peer tutoring center. A young white man in a position of leadership in the engineering department said he wanted to hear a broader perspective so he can "try to create a more inclusive environment."

The session, led by Anne Phibbs, president and founder of Strategic Diversity Initiatives, was one of a growing number of workshops on unconscious bias, diversity and inclusion making the rounds through corporations, nonprofits, government agencies and schools at a time of heightened attention around equality.

American companies spend an estimated $8 billion a year on diversity and inclusion training, according to the consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

Police departments in Minneapolis, St. Paul and other cities began the training several years ago on how to address personal biases as racially charged incidents brought more scrutiny of law enforcement. Starbucks shut down its locations for four hours to hold bias training for employees after two black men who had not placed an order were arrested at a Philadelphia store.

"The demand is growing, and I think it's growing across all sorts of organizations and industries," said Phibbs, who worked on diversity and inclusion at the University of Minnesota before starting her company.

St. Paul diversity consultant Jeremy Michael Clark said he's seen a particular demand for implicit bias training, which helps people identify subtle attitudes of prejudice and is a good choice for an organization trying to improve diversity and inclusion. But organizations that have already done that work are seeking training that will produce deeper change, though those cases are fewer, Clark added.

Some of the demand is being driven by demographics. While Minnesota remains a mostly white state, racial minority populations continue to grow rapidly. Between 2010 and 2017, Minnesota's black population rose 31%, its Hispanic population increased 20% and its Asian-American population grew 30%.

The growth of the niche diversity training industry was on display in early March at the Minneapolis Convention Center, which brought together diversity experts from around the country for the Forum on Workplace Inclusion.

The event, sponsored by Augsburg University, bills itself as the nation's largest workplace diversity, equity and inclusion conference. Participants included major Minnesota companies including the Land O'Lakes cooperative and Mayo Clinic, the state's largest employer.

Catherine Strahan, regional vice president of Mind Gym, a consulting firm that worked with Land O'Lakes, said the purpose of the training is to "unleash the potential of every individual at the organization to contribute at the highest level."

AMAZEworks Executive Director Rebecca Slaby told conferees that they must move past the idea of inclusion to think about belonging.

"Inclusion means you get to come into my space and I will include you on my terms as long as you say the right things, do the right things, behave the right way, all of those things," said Slaby, whose company is based in St. Paul. "Belonging is about, you get to be who you are, I get to be who I am, and we'll create the space together."

Kelsey Braak, a manager at Minneapolis-based West Monroe Partners, said that some employees commented several years ago that the company felt like an old boys' club. The business and technology consulting firm started a diversity and inclusion council and eventually hired the consulting firm FranklinCovey to help with unconscious bias training.

That training included having a member of the diversity and inclusion council talk about a personal experience they'd had with unconscious bias, how it made them feel and how it affected their performance. Senior leaders also shared their own stories. Now the company plans to hire a full-time diversity and inclusion leader, Braak said.

Another popular training regimen addresses "microaggressions," insensitive remarks based on negative assumptions about a person's identity, such as asking an American-born person of Asian descent where they're "really" from.

Consultant Michael Baran said that sometimes when a person would talk about how a comment made them feel excluded, others would get defensive and question whether it was really an act of aggression.

"The worst thing we could do is just focus on someone's intention and not the impact it had on the other person," said Baran, senior partner and digital solutions lead at inQUEST Consulting.

Jordy Chavez-Estrada, a senior biology major at St. Thomas, said after the recent diversity workshop that he'd like to see more white students attend.

"I think that the training is very useful for students and faculty that want to learn," Chavez-Estrada said, "but being frankly honest, the students and the faculty members that do need to be here will never come through those doors."

Maya Rao • 612-673-4210